New Ideas for a New Century of SF by James Wittenbach

I have spent the last few weeks reading the stories in the Fiction Archive of this web-site. Some of them are actually quite good, just an edit or two away from professional caliber. On the other hand, if I can make a general criticism, too many stories rehash tired old cliches that should have been put out to pasture long ago. I, for one, think it’s time for some new cliches.

A lot of these stories are based on the theme of “Future As Dystopia.” A pathologically dysfunctional society can be a great backdrop for innovative story-telling, but dystopia can take many, many forms. A lot of writers fall back on hackneyed depictions of a future world made insufferable by pollution or overpopulation. We see depictions where the rich exploit, oppress, hunt, eat and otherwise annoy the poor. Yadda Yadda Yadda. People, SF writers have been banging away those tired old drums since the 1950’s. This is not strictly an issue for amateur writers like myself and my colleagues. When was the last time you saw an original, challenging, dangerous idea on Star Trek Voyager or Outer Limits?

First of all, overpopulation. Yes, it would be a horrible thing if the entire world had the population density of Bangladesh, but one, it’s been done to death, and two, it ain’t gonna happen. Do the math. For the land area of the Earth to have equivalent population density to contemporary Bangladesh, global population would have to exceed 121 Billion people. No one, not even the hysterical Paul Ehrlich predicts anything like that. In fact, after peaking in the mid-twenty- first century at something less than ten billion, most models predict a steep decline in human population. By the year 3000, if present rates continue, the population of Japan will be 500 people. Consider, for a second, writing a story based on that factoid.

Next, Pollution. Pollution is bad, but the idea that pollution is bad is now part of mainstream culture. We have thousands of activists, academics, and government bureaucrats whose entire livelihood is based on propagating environmental doomsday scenarios. We don’t need science fiction writers for that.

Class warfare? A worthwhile potentially interesting topic, with many interesting and profound implications, but a lot of writers fall back on caricatures when they play the rich versus poor card. Making the villain a contemptuous middle-aged white guy running over children in his hover limo — I mean, come on. You might just as well have every robber in your story wear an eye mask and a black and white striped shirt and tiptoe around carrying a bag with a big dollar sign on the side. You can do better, and your stories will be more interesting if your characters are not convenient stereotypes.

Same goes for war stories. Making every general into a warmongering maniac is cheap shot, unworthy of anybody who wants to write meaningful fiction, and unrealistic besides. Warfare is more than an application of brute force, it is a tremendous intellectual challenge. I have had the privilege of meeting many high-ranking military officials through my work. For the most part, they are highly intelligent individuals with a variety of intellectual interests, including history, art, literature, philosophy … anything you can name. Even if the villain in the piece does happen to be a military commander, a complex villain is always more interesting than a one-note stereotype.

Okay, now instead of those worn-out SF retreads, let me suggest some new thematic possibilities, that break out of the established mode, and some stories that might arise from them.

The Culture of Blame: Personal responsibility has almost been litigated out of existence in modern America. Do you have lung cancer? Well, it’s not because you made a choice to smoke, it’s because evil tobacco companies forced you to smoke using pernicious mind control beams. Are you a murderer? A rapist? A child molester? It must be those danged Hollywood movies and violent video games. Consider a story imagining the implications of a society in which personal responsibility had been completely abrogated. Suggested Title: No Blood, No Foul.

Identity Politics: Consider a story depicting a world in which social worth is entirely rooted in political ethnic identity. I can imagine this as a crime story, in which cops solve violent crimes by investigating the ethnic backgrounds of the people involved, and deciding who is the victim based on historical social repression. (“Let’s see Lou, looks like one of these guys murdered the other one. One guy is African American, that’s 3 points, and an immigrant, that’s three points. The other guy is handicapped, 3 points there, and gay, that’s 3 pts.” ” Geez, Frank, it’s gonna pretty tough to decide who the victim here is.” “I got it, Lou! See if you can find out if one of them was vegetarian. That’s just the lead we need to bust this case wide open.”) Suggested Title: For the Good of the Community.

The Culture of Celebrity: Our culture already has become so materially prosperous that fame, not wealth, is the arbiter of status. We also live in a culture where people will confess to cheating on their spouse with a horse just to get on Jerry Springer. Consider a story about a media-crazed future in which the only people who matter are people who appear on television. (How hard is that to imagine?) Furthermore, image enhancement technology allows people on TV to look like flawless physical specimens, and the genpub (people not on TV) literally mutilate themselves trying to live up to that unachievable ideal. Suggest Title: Didn’t You Used To Be Somebody?

The New Censorship: Consider a story in which free speech is public health issue, and people with “unregulated opinions” are quarantined. With Speech Codes, Hate Crimes Laws, and, we are not very far from that point already. Suggested Title: IMHO.

So, look, that’s four out-of-the-box ideas and I haven’t even had breakfast yet. So, what do you say? Let’s stop abusing that poor expired equine, throw out those old wineskins, and start recycling aluminum cans, instead of story ideas.

James Wittenbach also publishes original science fiction at

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 James Wittenbach, All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

Leave a comment